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Thursday, July 19, 2007

Salvation and free will

The July edition of Christianity Today magazine features an editorial that attempts to explain one of the central beliefs of Evangelical Christians. (The essay is posed below.)

Catholics and Evangelicals differ on the path to salvation – Catholics saying it is a matter of faith and works, and Evangelicals say it is a matter of faith alone. I have discussed this with Evangelical friends many times. The discussion typically devolves into an argument where the Evangelical accuses the Catholic of trying to earn his way to heaven and the Catholic saying Evangelicals believe they can do anything and still get to heaven since their actions have no bearing on their salvation.

I was happy to see Christianity Today acknowledge that their version of Christianity leaves open the question: Why be good? The editors of the magazine try to answer but they ignore the notion of free will, which – at least for me – leaves their argument wholly unconvincing.

As the magazine rightly points out, for Christians, good works do naturally flow out of love for God. But the Christian always has to make a decision about whether to do good or otherwise. He always has that choice. You may be able to argue that people who are strong in their faith do good without thinking about it, but they still have a choice. If they did not have a choice, they would not be living true love for God. Love always gives you a choice. You can always walk away from it. You can always choose to reject the one you love. If you don’t have that choice, it isn’t love.

Catholics are simply acknowledging that a person always makes a choice. If a person chooses to do good, he maintains a loving relationship with God. If he chooses to do otherwise, he damages his relationship with God. Catholics say if you love God, you will show it by choosing to do good. Evangelicals say if you love God, you will do good; Evangelicals leave out the discernment component of the process.

Evangelicals have a point in the sense that if there is no discernment about doing good then those good works are meaningless; they would be no different than a movement in my eyebrow due to a twitch. But our actions are not uncontrollable. Christian or not, we all make decisions about how we are going to act. That is unavoidable. The Catholic view of salvation acknowledges that reality. The Evangelical view seems to ignore it.

Catholics do not believe they can earn their way to heaven. If we did believe that, we would say that it only takes good works to get to heaven. But we don’t say that. We say it takes faith and works. Faith is meaningless if you don’t choose to live it out some way.

Free will makes us human, and images of God. To deny free will is dehumanizing. Animals, for example, don’t have free will. That’s why the Christianity Today essay does not help me. It seems to deny, or at least ignore, free will.

Virtue That Counts
Why justification by faith alone is still our defining doctrine.

A Christianity Today editorial

Evangelicals who visit Rome cannot help but enjoy the stately buildings and stirring sense of history. A few like it so much they never leave. Such is the case with Francis Beckwith, former president of the Evangelical Theological Society. In April, the Baylor University philosopher rejoined the Roman Catholic Church.

Such defections always provoke a little evangelical soul-searching, in this case about the classic doctrine of justification. Beckwith found the Protestant view, which assumes that sanctification follows justification, inadequate.

"As an evangelical, even when I talked about sanctification and wanted to practice it, it seemed as if I didn't have a good enough incentive to do so," Beckwith told Christianity Today. "Now [in Catholicism] there's a kind of theological framework, and it doesn't say my salvation depends on me, but it says my virtue counts for something."

Beckwith, in describing his confusion, has done us a favor, giving us an opportunity to explore a question that frankly many Christians ask: Why be good?

The Virtue of Christ
Justification by faith, which gives us assurance of our standing before God, is not just a pastoral doctrine. It goes to the very core of our theological tradition. Martin Luther described it as the "first and chief article" of Protestantism "on which the church stands or falls." It is no surprise then that recent affirmations of justification have attracted evangelicals as diverse as Tom Oden and R. C. Sproul, Pat Robertson and Ron Sider. Still, don't be surprised to see more debates about justification unfolding. Next month's cover story, by British scholar Simon Gathercole, will look at how some evangelical scholars are reinterpreting Paul's teaching on justification.

So what is the "first and chief article of Protestantism"? Scripturally, it goes like this: All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God (Rom. 3:23). Alienated from God, hostile in mind, we practice evil behavior (Col. 1:21). Though we offend his perfect holiness, God acquits those who trust in him and in what he has done for us through Christ: "God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God" (2 Cor. 5:21).

Theologically, we understand it like this: In his perfect life and obedient death, Jesus succeeded where Adam failed and became the head of God's new family. We belong to Christ; we belong to this new humanity. Christ is judged righteous, and we who believe are made alive in him.

The late medieval church framed its understanding of God's grace in terms of merit: personal merit was never enough, and the infinite merits of Christ were available only through the sacramental channels of the church. Luther and the other Reformers used Paul to challenge the church monopoly on merit. They rightly taught that only Jesus' merit counted before God and that only through faith could his merit be ours. God credits Jesus' righteousness to those who trust in him, declaring them just and acquitting them of their sins.

Such a radical idea has caused many to think: This is too good to be true. Surely I must contribute something to the process. But we contribute nothing. We don't even contribute faith. With God's gift of faith, we paradoxically deny the meritorious nature of human action and affirm the work of Another. It is not faith in faith, but faith in Christ.

Thus, Protestants from John Calvin to John Wesley have agreed: We have peace with God by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone.

Flaunted Freedom
Another question that has troubled Christians since the days of Paul is this: "Why bother to be good when it seems to make no difference to our salvation?"

Paul has little patience for such an attitude, partly because it displays a fundamental misunderstanding of what happens in justification. It is not only about getting rid of personal guilt; it is also about taking on a new corporate identity. "We died to sin," Paul says. "How can we live in it any longer?" (Rom. 6:2). We have been baptized into Christ's death; shouldn't we live with him in resurrection life? As members of his new humanity, shouldn't we live like it? Paul's conclusion: "Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body" (Rom. 6:12).

Simply put, those who are truly justified will lead lives of holiness, knowing with Paul that "we are God's workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do" (Eph. 2:10).

Sadly, many in our churches have sold the extraordinary gift of justification for the pottage of therapeutic religion. Rather than finding assurance in Christ, some assure themselves they have done nothing so bad as to deserve condemnation.

Even worse, others flaunt their freedom, abusing the truth that Jesus covers a multitude of sins. As Paul said of people who accused him of teaching that we should sin to bring more grace: "Their condemnation is deserved" (Rom. 3:8).

Such attitudes do not exemplify trust in the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who treats holiness with deathly seriousness. They turn the old notions of merit on their heads, treating a priceless gift—Jesus' righteousness—as if it had no value.

The Bible says this type of faith—faith without good works—is as good as no faith at all. It's as dead and meaningless as the selling of indulgences.

So, Professor Beckwith, virtue does count for Protestants—it signals our understanding that Christ's virtue counts for everything, and that any good the Holy Spirit enables us to do is but a grateful response to God's gift of justification.

When the church gets that, it gets our "first and chief" message, a message that still turns people's worlds upside down.

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